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The PLA and the Kosovo Conflict

Authored by Dr. June Teufel-Dreyer. | May 2000

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Introduction: The ?China Threat? or a Threatened China?

The discussion of the ?China Threat? in the industrialized countries of the world, and especially in the United States, has been prompted by a number of factors. Although facing no external threat and having many internal needs, the People?s Republic of China (PRC) has for a decade raised its defense budget between 12 and 13 percent a year. Moreover, numerous substantial military expenditures are not included in the defense budget; the actual defense budget is generally estimated at three to four times the published figure. China has made major weapons purchases, mainly from Russia and Israel, and has achieved advances in indigenous development as well. A U.S. congressional committee report issued in early 1999 has disclosed that several of these advances occurred as a result of Chinese espionage operations in the United States. 1In addition, a U.S. Defense Department report issued at the same time predicted that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait would shift in favor of the PRC in the next 3 to 5 years.2 The PRC?s rhetoric has also become increasingly militant.

As China appeared more threatening to the West and to Japan, its own media increasingly portrayed the PRC as menaced by an industrialized world bent on forcing its ideology on the rest of the planet, and on China in particular. In China?s analysis, Washington, unable to cope with the idea of a powerful PRC, wants to dismember China so that the United States can remain the hegemon of the international system. This was the prism through which the Chinese leadership viewed the Clinton administration-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). The operationwas construed as a possible prelude to intervention into the PRC. The People?s Liberation Army (PLA), charged with the defense of the ancestral land, debated with particular urgency what would be the most appropriate way to respond to foreign pressure. This monograph will summarize those debates and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies advocated.


Though the salience of the Kosovo conflict has receded, the underlying issues that caused such intense interest have not been resolved. Washington is unlikely to foreswear the kind of behavior that so upset Beijing, and Beijing is unlikely to foreswear the use of force against Taiwan, which drifts ever further from the mainland?s ambit, or to grant the human rights concessions that China?s ethnic, religious, or other dissidents want. Chances are that confrontation, and the debate on how the PLA should respond, will flare up again in the near future.

In fact, each of the three approaches to dealing with the United States militarily has its deficiencies. People?s War techniques will be useful only to the extent that the mainland is attacked by foreign forces, which is a highly unlikely scenario at best.38 Moreover, in the event of the most likely trigger for a Sino-American confrontation?themainland?s use of force against Taiwan?it is the citizens of Taiwan who will be able to exploit the advantages of People?s War. There is, for example, already an underground wartime command center beneath Taipei.39 The PRC?s Tibetan and Muslim dissidents have already shown that they are adept at guerrilla warfare and irregular warfare techniques. Efforts to catch up to the United States militarily is, as its critics point out, extraordinarily expensive and would have adverse effects on the PRC?s economic development. The techniques of asymmetric and acupuncture warfare will be successful only to the extent that one?s enemy has not thought to attack one?s own weak points or to protect its own. This, too, is highly unlikely. 40

At present, the leadership seems to have decided on the time-honored bureaucratic technique of giving each of the PLA schools some resources to devote to its preferred option. This cannot automatically be assumed to be an unwise dissipation of resources. The schools are not mutually exclusive, and their different techniques could supplement each other in time of conflict. Certain techniques of People?s War, including deception and underground storage, are being employed. An ambitious program of weapons development is occurring, some of it indigenous in nature and some helped by purchases from abroad, mainly from Russia and Israel. At the same time, considerable efforts are being devoted to asymmetric techniques such as laser ?death rays.?41 How effective any of these would be in actual combat remains to be seen. What cannot be doubted is that the PLA is becoming an increasingly formidable foe.


1. Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People?s Republic of China, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999.

2. ?Report to Congress Pursuant to the FY 1999 Appropriations Bill,? February 26, 1999, available at: <www/defenselink.mil/pubs/ twstrait_02261999.html>.

38. Underground storage of planes and moving the population into tunnels could have some value should there be retaliation against a mainland attack on Taiwan?s territory. But this assumes that retaliation would occur only in the area nearest Taiwan. Such restraint on the part of one?s enemy cannot be guaranteed.

39. Monique Chu, ?Disaster Response Center Likely to Get Its Own Headquarters,? Taipei Times, November 30, 1999, via internet.

40. Brian Hsu, ?Generals Warn of ?Asymmetric Warfare?,? Taipei Times, December 4, 1999, via internet. An upgraded command, control, and communications system is scheduled to be deployed in February 2000. According to senior ROC military officials, it will strengthen the country?s ability to intercept and jam enemy electronic systems. See Brian Hsu, ?Army Upgrades C3 Systems,? Taipei Times, November 30, 1999, via internet.

41. Barbara Opall-Rome, ?PLA Pursues Acupuncture Warfare,? Defense News, Washington, DC, March 1, 1999. Ms. Opall-Rome quotes extensively from Lin Chong-Pin, ?Dianxue? (?Acupuncture Warfare?) in Heba (Nuclear Hegemon), Taipei: The Student Publisher, 1999, pp. 1-32.